The 7 July assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, has thrown the country into disarray. Here’s what you need to know
In the days since President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination last week, Haiti’s situation has become increasingly uncertain. Questions remain over the tragic incident, as a power struggle plays itself out in the Caribbean island nation of 11 million. Haiti, the world’s first independent Black republic, already faced acute problems before Moïse’s murder: political protests, gang violence, crushing poverty, rising COVID-19 cases and no vaccine doses. Here’s your guide to what’s happening in Haiti.
What do we know about the assassination?
Haiti’s acting prime minister, Claude Joseph, said the president’s private residence in the upmarket Petionville neighbourhood of the capital was stormed on 7 July by “a highly trained and heavily armed group”. A judicial magistrate in Petionville, Carl Henry Destin, said Moïse’s body had 12 bullet wounds. Moise’s wife was also shot and evacuated to Miami for medical treatment. She subsequently tweeted a recording in which she accused shadowy enemies of organising the assassination to prevent democratic change.
The Haitian authorities claim Moïse was murdered by foreign mercenaries as part of a conspiracy involving Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a 63-year-old doctor, living in Florida. Haiti’s police chief Léon Charles announced the arrest of Sanon on Monday, claiming he had flown into Haiti on a private plane in early June with “political objectives”.
Charles accused Sanon of hiring a team to execute the president through a Venezuelan security firm based in the United States. Longtime Haiti-watchers, however, have raised doubts about the official narrative, with the Miami Herald noting many “unanswered questions”. These include, “How Sanon, who once filed for bankruptcy, could be behind a costly conspiracy. Some of the people arrested said that they were paid $3,000 a month and had been living in Haiti since January.”
Whoever paid for the operation, it remains a mystery how the attackers could have entered the well-guarded home of Haiti’s head of state, shot him dead and left.
Who was Jovenel Moïse?
Moïse, 53, a banana farmer, was a political unknown when he contested the 2015 presidential election. Known in Haitian Kreyol as Neg Bannann, or banana man, Moïse ran on the ticket of the ruling Tet Kale party of the outgoing president, Michel Martelly. Moïse was nothing like Martelly, who was a charismatic singer. He portrayed himself as an outsider focussed on strengthening Haiti’s institutions, promoting small farmers and fighting corruption in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Moïse won, but the 2015 results were thrown out following allegations of fraud. In November 2016, he ran again and won, helped by a low voter turnout. But rivals challenged the results and Moïse only took office in February 2017, a delayed timeline that may have been a factor in his death.
At the time of his assassination, Moïse had been ruling by decree for 18 months, having dismissed all but ten members of the 30-seat Senate in the two-chamber legislature. His opponents said his five-year term had ended on 7 February this year. But Moïse claimed it began in 2017 and he was entitled to stay in office until 2022.
Moïse was criticised for approving measures to limit judicial oversight of government contracts and for creating an intelligence agency that answered only to him.
In recent months, political instability had deepened in Haiti with gang violence spiking in the country’s capital, Port au Prince. On 29 June, a journalist and a well-known activist were among 15 people killed during a shooting rampage in the capital.
What does it mean for Haiti in the immediate future?
No one knows. Haiti currently has no head of state, no functioning legislature, an unelected acting prime minister who has declared a “state of siege” that is essentially martial law, not to mention a constitutional legal vacuum because the head of its supreme court died of COVID in June. Moïse appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, to replace Claude Joseph with the apparent aim of forming a consensus government, but Henry has yet to be sworn in. Both the US and the UN’s top Haiti envoy have backed Joseph’s claim to lead the country until elections are held, possibly later this year.
The political crisis deepened when some Haitian lawmakers recognised Joseph Lambert, head of the senate, as provisional president, and Henry as prime minister. Members of US president Joe Biden’s Democratic Party admit the situation is volatile, with congressman Andy Levin, the co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, saying it’s “completely unprecedented”. Levin added: “You’ve got a situation where there’s no government administration that’s seen as legitimate”.
On 10 July, the Haitian government called for the US to dispatch troops to protect the country’s key infrastructure, but the Biden administration has so far said only that it will send senior FBI and homeland security officials and “financial resources”.
What does it mean for Haiti long term?
The current crisis continues the narrative of grief, chaos and mismanagement that has long afflicted Haiti. In its 217 years as a sovereign nation, Haiti has faced multiple challenges. After slaves wrested independence from France in 1804, the slave-owning United States isolated Haiti for several decades for fear of the threat to its own economic interests. France extracted a price for Haiti’s independence, demanding that its former colony compensate for the lost value of slaves and Haiti’s profitable crops. That debt – estimated at $21bn today – impoverished Haiti.
Haiti has also suffered other foreign interventions. In 1915, after the brutal assassination of President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam – the second Haitian head of state to be killed – the US sent its forces in to quell the chaos. This led to nearly two decades of occupation. Haiti has also had its share of coups and dictatorships, not least ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, who ruled for 14 years from 1957 with help from the fearful Tonton Macoute militia. His son ‘Baby Doc’ was overthrown by a popular uprising in 1986. In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest who espoused liberation theology, won the presidential election, Haiti's first free and peaceful poll. He was overthrown by the military a year later.
In 1994 and 2004, US troops were back in Haiti to restore democracy and order. A UN stabilisation force was created for Haiti in 2004, a rare instance of a UN peacekeeping force in a country without a war. In January 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, onomatopoeically described by Haitians as “goudou goudou”, left more than 200,000 people dead and Port au Prince in ruins. Later that year, the country suffered the worst cholera outbreak in recent history, which killed nearly 10,000 people.